It may not be what fans of the Edmonton Oilers want to hear, but chances are Peter Chiarelli is done upgrading his blueline for the 2015-16 campaign. While many appear to still be holding out hope on the pipe dream of acquiring Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook, it looks as though Todd McClellan has a pretty good idea of what he will be given to work with during his first year behind the Oilers bench.
While there is still a good chance one of Andrew Ference or Nikita Nikitin will be moved prior to the start of next season, with my money being on the latter, there will not be any sort of reinforcements coming in to take either one’s spot. As of this moment, Edmonton has nine players for seven spots. Even with one of Ference or Nikitin out of the picture, the math doesn’t work.
While the quintet of Mark Fayne, Erica Gryba, Oscar Klefbom, Justin Schultz and Andrej Sekera are all but guaranteed spots, the 2004 third-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres would be the only guy who is a legitimate Top Four NHL defenceman. Add the rookie duo of Darnell Nurse and Griffin Reinhart into the mix and you suddenly have the makings of what could eventually turn into a fairly effective backend.
Inexperience Remains A Concern
Unfortunately the likelihood of that taking place from October 2015 to April 2016, are not very good. In my mind, that is something this organization is completely comfortable with and probably even expecting. Despite the addition of Connor McDavid and seven other new players to the roster, both Chiarelli and McLellan are going out of their way to keep expectations in check. While certainly a smart approach to take, it is one most Oiler fans will probably not share.
Anyone expecting this group to deliver a big improvement on what we saw in 2014-15 is not being realistic. With Klebom and Schultz still finding their way as everyday players and one of Nurse or Reinhart set to join them in starting lineup against the St. Louis Blues in the season opener, things could go a little sideways. Between all four of them, they have seen action in a grand total of 290 games and 203 of those belong to the former second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks. As we all know, inexperience and defencemen are almost never a good combination in the NHL.
#Oilers sign Sekera to a 6-year deal worth $33-million ($5.5 AAV). Solid defender, outside of one 44 point season, not big point producer.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) July 1, 2015
With that said, the talent level on this blueline is much improved. Sekera will replace what Jeff Petry brought to the table in previous seasons and the aforementioned rookie tandem are a marked improvement on what has been here in recent years. Both will play major roles on this team for years to come but expecting either one to do so prior to their 22nd birthday is insanity. Growing pains are part of the equation.
Now there are still some who believe Chiarelli should go out and try to sign one of Christian Ehrhoff or Cody Franson but neither one would come to the Alberta capital on a short-term deal. That is all the Oilers would be willing to offer. At 33-years of age, there is absolutely zero chance of the German blueliner being given a long-term deal by this organization. When it comes to Franson, it’s no secret Edmonton was interested but that likely changed the moment they inked Sekera. It was going to be one or the other.
Goaltending Could Help Ease the Pain
There is no question that if the quality of netminding improves, the defence will not only look better but also perform at a higher level on the ice. Having confidence in your goaltender’s ability to stop the puck and make the occasional highlight reel save, puts every player’s mind at ease and that cannot be overlooked. While the Oilers backend would never be confused for one of the deepest in the league, it is far from being a collection of scrubs. There is talent there.
If Cam Talbot and one of Anders Nilsson or Ben Scrivens prove capable of handling this team’s defensive shortcomings, while still delivering quality netminding on a nightly basis, Edmonton could surprise some teams. Make no mistake, they will still struggle to play defence as a five-man unit in their own end of the rink, but this blueline should be able to move the puck up ice far more effectively than they have in recent seasons.
Like most teams, the Edmonton Oilers need stops from their goalie in order to have a shot at winning with any sort of regularity. If that were to actually occur, then expecting Todd McLellan and his coaching staff to get a little extra from this collection of players may not be completely far-fetched. While a playoff spot remains highly unlikely, real improvements could be made. Even with a blueline as flawed as this one.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.